Community Engagement and the Leadership that Encourages It

Job Creation as a marketing strategy

On November 6, we have an opportunity to take part in the most basic expression of citizenship. We will do so in predictable rates of 50 to 60 percent of the eligible electorate, carrying into the polling station varying degrees of uncertainty and indecision in our guts.

The presidential race curiously offers the clearest choice, as there is also a senatorial race, seats for the U.S. House, state House and local offices, and a slurry of statewide and local ballot initiatives that await us. Yard signs and other messages will wash together in our minds forming cognitive associations that their creators never intended. "Was that yes on Proposal 3?" "Was that Coffia?" or "What candidate likes beer again?"

I look forward to the day after the election.

It is far more interesting and effective working on what we do afterward as citizens; people with rights and duties as members of a community. Organizing around a vote is one way to impact change, but nothing equals throwing the full force of your knowledge, energy, and person behind a collective effort of improving the community.

Northern Michigan has a wealth of smart, talented, and empathetic people already exemplifying the change that they wish to see. Last month's 40under40 highlighted some of the boldest. Local leaders, whether they are elected, appointed, hired, or self-professed, would do well by reaching out to the people like them and asking, "How can we serve you in shaping the direction of our community?"

To rephrase a quote by Margaret Mead, the solution to community problems today and tomorrow depends on how well we empower young citizens today. Leadership needs incubating; leadership needs leaders.

Too often, citizens are discouraged from participating in community development. There are the common time conflicts and other practical obstacles to participation, some which may even be intentional. Often, the work required to have any meaningful impact is perceived as too great. These concerns are overcome when there is a real sense that what we have to contribute is valued.

To counter the cynicism that is already eroding social institutions, it is imperative that those in leadership roles reaffirm, through their actions, that they are indeed listening, are willing to break down bureaucratic barriers, and will embrace disagreement as an opportunity to build trust and a shared vision rather than see it as an obstacle to pre-established positions.

A diverse group of citizens, aided and affirmed by leadership, joining forces with each other to explore opportunities for the good of the community is fundamental to civic life. Simply put, people support that which they help create.

The late Nobel Peace Prize winner for economics, Elinor Ostrom, researched issues of economic governance applied to the management of common resources. In her work, fundamental to the creation of a new street project, a new dog park, or any other major community decision is one thing: trust.

As she warns:

"Trust is the most important resource. If a community has been forbidden from managing its resources for a long time, the main obstacle to overcome is the lack of trust and the effort to get organized in the first place. It's not a trivial matter."

Politics is people; that's all. I cringe when I hear the dismissive remark, "Oh, that's just politics," as if due to the nature of civic engagement we enter a world of strife, discord, and low expectations. In and of itself, politics is simply a means for a community to manage its resources and to make decisions about its future.

People want to make creative contributions and they want to feel great when they do so. This is achieved not only when people succeed, but also when they are asked to work in a process that is whole, nourishing and focused. Underscored by trust and a shared vision, community politics can achieve the extraordinary and the impossible.

Go vote. Then get back to work.

Gary L. Howe is a freelance journalist and instructor in the social science department at NMC. He volunteers on the Traverse City Parks and Recreation Commission.